Applied network theory

The network is not only the computer. It is also the operating system and the software development environment. Coders will thrive in this environment, but increasingly, so will social connectors and information mappers. Network theory tells us that some of these hubs will outperform others. It doesn't explain why. Perhaps there are general laws that produce favored hubs in any kind of network. But in a knowledge network the hubs are people imbued with a talent, and driven by a passion, for connecting people, information, and components. Software development doesn't yet recognize that professional role, but I predict that it will. [Full story at O'Reilly Network]

One of the threads woven through my latest O'Reilly Network column is the notion that the film industry's project-oriented, just-in-time assembly of resources and talent is a leading indicator. "Every business will be like show business," say the authors of a 1995 Inc. Magazine story I quote in the article. What led me to hunt down that article was a conversation with my friend Andy Singleton, a serial entrepeneur whom I've known since he showed up at BYTE's offices one day to tell us about his use of genetic algorithms for financial analysis. Of course, we ran the article. If you visited the rambling historic house where Andy then lived, on Dublin Lake in the shadow of Mount Monadnock, you'd have seen, in the dining room, the rack of motherboards that were the homebrew supercomputer on which Andy ran that GA software.

I think Andy's latest venture, Assembla, is as exciting -- and potentially revolutionary -- as his early GA work. From Assembla's website:

Singleton is fascinated by the ways that innovation happens -- in business, in biological evolution, and in artificial evolution. He believes that wetware -- that is, people and the way they work together -- is the key to the next great advance in our civilization.

That sounds a bit frothy out of context, but Andy's a hard-headed realist and a results-oriented guy. And the results he's getting are IT projects done ahead of schedule and under budget. How? The ingredients include open-source software, the "surgeon" model described in Frederick Brooks' classic The Mythical Man-Month, and "offshore" (non-U.S.) talent. That's a potentially explosive combination. On a recent trip to Redmond, for example, I saw protesters at Microsoft's front gate picketing that company's exportation of work to India.

Andy elsewhere connects this trend toward what he calls "IT deflation" to the film industry's loosely-coupled style of organizing work. I knew I'd seen that connection made somewhere else, and I finally tracked it down. Jeremy Rifkin's The Age of Access, which I reviewed here, makes the same point. While it's clear that loosely-coupled systems are the way of the future, we haven't yet sorted out what that means for software, let alone for the organization of work. Rifkin's book, though rarely discussed, provides an excellent framework for thinking about the transformations now underway.

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